Keywords: industrial ecology, biological analogy, scientific discovery, justification, complex systems theory, non-equilibrium thermodynamics, nature, industrial systems, ecosystems
Human systems in terms of natural systems? Employing non-equilibrium thermodynamics for evaluating industrial ecology's 'ecosystem metaphor'
Understanding industrial systems in terms of natural systems forms the central pillar of Industrial Ecology. This paper argues that its method of comparing individual companies with participants in natural ecosystems is problematic, arising from a level of ecosystem analysis inappropriate to explain the common root of these two kinds of complex systems. The comparison between these two constitutes an employment of a scientific metaphor, whose role in theory building needs to be understood better: useful in inspiring discovery, but needing a solid foundation for being a valid science. Supposedly similar behaviour between natural and industrial systems cannot by itself constitute a valid theory basis. We suggest looking at thermodynamic characteristics; structures are developed in order to incorporate and thus to dissipate inflowing solar energy, threatening to disrupt the stability of a complex system in its immediate environment. Finally, the paper discusses the consequences and limits of this perspective for industrial ecological work.